I used to dread eating dinner with my family. Arguments and complaints were all I heard from 9-year-old Angela, 3-year-old Melissa, my husband Kurt. If one of the girls wasn’t yelling at the other, my husband or I were scolding the girls. Sometimes Kurt and I even snapped at each other.
“Mom! Melissa spit her milk at me!”
“Melissa, stop it. Eat nice.”
“Angela, don’t poke at your sister!”
“Kurt, can’t you do something about these two? Why do I always have to be the one to yell?”
“If you girls keep it up, you’re both going to your bedrooms!”
Ah, yes ... dinner time, sweet dinner time. I began daydreaming of feeding the children a quick supper at 5:00 p.m. and then sitting down to a relaxing, candlelit meal with my husband after the children were in bed.
Many nights I actually left the table and went into another room because I was about to explode or cry. We often hear about children running away from home. Sometimes it’s mothers who want to run away.
I knew things were getting critical when I began to look forward to working overtime and arriving home too late to eat with the family. I actually treasured those peaceful evenings alone, quietly eating my dinner while the children were asleep.
I was even happy waiting at the doctor’s office after work one day when he was running behind schedule, because it meant another quiet meal alone at home that night.
But the joy of dining alone was short-lived. Sitting alone in the dark kitchen one evening, I wondered, “Why is our family dinner time so miserable? How can I turn the situation around?”
I recalled the “Leave it to Beaver” TV show and pictured the Cleavers sitting at the table chatting, laughing, and talking about their days’ activities. Talking – maybe that was the key.
I decided to turn dinnertime into talking time. I made a list of questions to ask each member of the family to get the discussion rolling. When we sat down to dinner the next evening, I announced my new plan. Kurt, Angela, and Melissa listened attentively as I explained my idea. “Let’s all take turns answering these four questions. The first one is ‘What did you learn today?’ The answer doesn’t have to be something you learned in school or from the internet. It can be anything you feel is worthwhile that you’d like to share with everyone.”
Angela giggled as she held up a skinned knee. “I learned not to run with my shoelace untied.”
The next question I asked was, “What is something nice that you did today for someone else – a family member, a friend, or a stranger? It can be any good deed, no matter how small.”
Kurt volunteered to go first. “I explained to the new neighbor woman how to find the grocery store.”
I asked Kurt to tell us about the new neighbors. After a detailed description, I went on to my third question.
“What is something nice that someone did for you today?”
Melissa piped up for this one. “Eric shared his chocolate chip cookies with me.”
The last question made us all think for a minute. “What did you especially like about each person in our family today?”
In between bites of the family’s favorite spaghetti dinner, I looked at each one of them and said, “I like the fact that you’re all willing to answer these questions and that nobody yelled at anybody during dinner.”
We’ve been taking turns answering the same questions night after night for years and somehow the responses are never the same.
Sometimes the answers to what we learned that day are informative. Angela once told us that hamsters can have up to 13 babies in a litter and that the babies’ eyes don’t open for two weeks. Other nights the answers give us a good feeling, such as the time when Melissa excitedly shared the news that a family with two children moved into the new house across the street.
The answers we give to what we did for someone else always remind us to be helpful to others the next day. Our deeds have ranged from baking cookies for the new neighbors, to holding open a door for an elderly person, to volunteering to help at the church clean-up day, to catching the neighbor’s dog when it broke its leash.
On the night that Kurt relayed a story about a stranger who helped Kurt fix his car when it broke down, we were all reminded of how much goodness there still is in the world. Kurt actually felt good about the stranger’s kindness twice—once when the man was helpful and again when he shared the experience with the rest of us.
Best of all, I look forward to dinner again. I no longer want to run away, work overtime, or get stuck waiting at the doctor’s office. Dinner with my family now is a time I can’t afford to miss.
Sue Carloni is a freelance writer.